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Beverly Hills's Rodeo Drive Dreams of Green Christmas

California symbol of style rebounds after deep recession

'The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There's never been such a day, in Beverly Hills, L.A."

As he wrote these words for his 1940 hit, "White Christmas," lyricist Irving Berlin was looking out his window not far from Rodeo Drive, the upscale, retail heart of this wealthy suburb.

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If he were looking out that same window today, different lyrics might come to mind: "Cash registers are ringing, the cash is green, and up is going the Dow. There's never been such a cash cow, in Beverly Hills, eeyow!"

This four-block stretch is known around the world for high-end luxury goods on par with Paris' Champs-lyses, London's Bond Street, Tokyo's Ginza, and New York's Fifth Avenue. But despite some of the most-storied names in money (and most-monied names in stores) - Chanel, Gucci, Cartier - the area's classy cachet was headed for the dumpster in the early 1990s, thanks to California's worst-ever recession.

Now, with the recent rebound of the US economy and a major turnaround in the long-term fortunes of the Golden State (courtesy of a reinvented, high-tech economy) one of the world's great holiday shopping streets is back, big time.

"We've had a diametric turnaround," says Fred Hayman, boutique owner and founding member of the 25-year-old Rodeo Drive Committee. Pointing up a street that has welcomed eight major new stores and five complete remodels in the past two years, he says, "Two years ago the place looked dead, and now we're having our greatest resurgence ever."

For retailers here, and for southern California in general, these comments reflect a turnaround in confidence about a city that for several years has projected the images of chaos around the globe: riots, earthquakes, fires, and mud slides.

"The Rodeo Drive turnaround is a perfect mirror to the fact that southern California has returned to good economic times," says Chuck Dembo, a Beverly Hills-based realtor. He adds that almost no retail space is now available and that commercial property values are up 20 percent.

Indeed, some of the hottest, and most expensive names in apparel, accessories, sport, beauty, and collectibles have set up shop here, where only two years ago, 40-percent-empty retail space meant boarded-up storefronts.

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The most dramatic change is at the north end of the street, where a 25,000-square-foot, two-story Tommy Hilfiger flagship store has been built. A central staircase rivals that of the plantation Tara from "Gone With the Wind," beneath a rotunda sky-dome that could fit many statehouses. If shoppers manage to rip themselves away from admiring the grand decor, they can also pick up comfy alligator shoes for a paltry $1,230.

Several doors down, French saddlery Hermes has expanded its leather accessories/apparel store footage by more than a factor of 10 - from 1,300 square feet to 17,000 square feet. Watches are $18,000, but beach towels are a steal at $400.

If that sounds extravagant, the same amount will get you a haircut by French coutier Frederic Fekkai, in his just-opened, 5,000-square-foot "Beaut de Provence" penthouse (only $290). And you'll still have enough left over for a seaweed body wrap ($55) for you and your closest friend.

But the presence of these stores is about more than having or making money.

"We are here for the incredible recognition factor of Rodeo Drive," Mr. Fekkai told me from one of three cafe verandas, designed in French country style. "This street has the edge and image I want, it shows I belong in the same fashion world as the top luxury goods."

That means not only hip, trendy, and pricey stores, but hip, trendy, and fat-walleted people to shop them.

A Hong Kong businessman reportedly plunked down $91,000 cash for goods at Giorgio Armani, and Mr. Hayman says $5,000 gowns are selling better than anytime since the 1980s.

As for me, since I don't have that kind of green, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas.

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